by Anna Kerdijk-Nicholson
Puncher & Wattmann
Reviewed by MELINDA SMITH
The cover design of Anna Kerdijk-Nicholson’s dense and rewarding new book plays knowingly with the title, splitting the word Everyday across two lines and hyphenating it. Everyday Epic. Every day, epic. Fortunately the book lives up to both kinds of promise.
Starting with The Bundanon Cantos in 2003 Kerdijk-Nicholson has developed several distinct strands in her work. There are poems engaging with Australian history, poems in the lyric mode grappling with landscape, love , loss or all three, ekphrastic poems, and experimental works. In Everyday Epic each of these strands appears again, sometimes separately, sometimes woven together, all realised in Kerdijk-Nicholson’s precisely achieved language. She is a deft wielder of vivid one-syllable verbs (‘lug’ ‘swill’, ‘rasp’, ‘wrap’, ‘score’, ‘brand’, ‘pound’), which gives her work a muscular quality, a sense of hard physical work in the words like the hefting and honing of rocks. While working predominantly in free verse she is also technically adept in a range of forms, from the sonnet to the syllabic, skilled examples of each of which appear in this book.
Kerdijk-Nicholson’s landscape lyrics in Everyday Epic grow out of the beautiful poems in The Bundanon Cantos, and in fact this book contains two of the Cantos, slightly reworked: ‘Survivors’ (Canto XIII), and ‘Funeral Pyre’ (Canto XXXII). In this vein there are several more fine, sparely emotional yet resonant poems combining outer and inner landscape, such as ‘Driving to you’ and the perfectly achieved ‘Griefs’. There is a luscious sensuality in ‘Pears’ and ‘The first mango of summer’ which echoes Bundanon Canto XXXIV ‘Grace’. There are also fine elegies like the beautiful (and visceral) ‘Allotment’. These represent a broadening and deepening of her lyric achievement.
One of the central concerns of Everday Epic is art. There are several ekphrastic pieces: ‘Sketch and Oil: Picasso’s Desmoiselles d’Avignon’, contrasting the two versions of the famous work viewed side by side in New York’s MoMA; ‘The Polish Rider’, imagining the origins of Rembrandt’s painting, and the devastating ‘On the Exhibition of Yosuke Yamahata’s 119 Photographs of Nagasaki’. The ‘Truganinni’ sequence (discussed below) also falls into this category . Several more poems, concentrated in the sixth section of the book, consider the nature of art and making more generally, and their complicated relationship to ‘reality’ (‘Life Drawing’, ’Studies for a Nude’, ‘Notebook’, ‘Still Life’, ‘Bangarra’, ‘New York Lens’, ‘A woman walks towards a horse, in a poem’, ‘untitled’, ‘The mind travels’, ‘About seeing’, ‘What Landscape is telling’). Kerdijk-Nicholson’s position on these matters is perhaps best encapsulated in the ‘Jet vapour-trails’ section of ‘What Landscape is Telling’:
Back here, bees throb on purple
stitch herringbones, fall quiet
In this landscape
idea and picture compound.
To steal one damages the other –
as in trying to get sand
back from glass
This book also contains new experimental poems, harking back to works like ‘Cento’ in The Bundanon Cantos (Canto XXIII). Chief among these is ‘The Gubba Effect’ sequence, re-mixing the words of Brenda Saunders and Patti Smith into an unsettling meditation on the dispossession and denial at the heart of the Australian nation-state. She also ‘speaks back’ to poems—‘Pears’ is a riff on Stanley Kunitz’s ‘My Mother’s Pears’, told from the point of view of the pear-sender rather than the pear-receiver.
Everyday Epic continues Kerdijk-Nicholson’s engagement with Australian history in the sequences The Factitious Tragedy of Burke and Wills (of which more below) and ‘Truganinni’. The two main Truganinni poems compare an 1830 painting and an 1866 photograph of the woman named variously as Truggernana, Seaweed, and Lalla Rookh. Not surprisingly both poems think very hard about the concept of ‘gaze’; in both of them Truganinni herself is described as frowning, and in the second there is ‘No doubt who looks at whom’. In a postscript to the sequence (‘The interpretative nature of art’) Kerdijk-Nicholson enacts the complexity of viewing the images today, through a post-colonial lens, as it were. Language almost breaks under the strain, leaving the reader (and the poet)
with interpret, crucible, mutilation
with stupid heart
why not leave what’s done alone
neighbour, we live in your home.
To the pre-existing strands of history, landscape lyric, ekphrasis and experiment, Kerdijk-Nicholson adds in this book a group of poems dealing with contemporary political and social issues: ‘The Goat-Song of the Bone Folder’ traces the journey of a maker of books who has become a refugee and is interned on Christmas Island and then Villawood. The poems use conceits of ink, stitching, leather and text, while the bone-folder of the title, a book-tool, comes to symbolise lost livelihood, agency, and love. Everyday Epic also contains (perhaps less successful) attempts to render contemporary life in Sydney (‘Diurnal – Slurry Heights’ and ‘Greek Orthodox, Surry Hills’) (although she does explicitly state this is a ‘diurnal that won’t be grasped or writ’). Here, too, are engagements with casual violence (‘From the kitchen window’, ‘At Sculpture by the Sea’) which are laudable in their witness-bearing, but which perhaps do not quite attain the resonant quality of her other work.
And so to the final section of the book, The Factitious Tragedy of Burke and Wills. These eight long, linked poems continue Kerdijk-Nicholson’s ‘Australian History from Inside the Heads of Historical Personages’ work—seen previously to great effect in Possession, her acclaimed 2010 collection of Captain Cook ventriloquy.
The Burke and Wills poems are impeccably researched and follow the sprawling farce of the ill-fated 1860 ‘Victorian Exploring Expedition’ in chronological order, with a nuanced point of view that takes in the broader tragedy of the colonial enterprise. As she did with Possession, she has taken the poem titles from the lines of poets completely removed in time and place from the events recounted: in this case mining Louise Gluck and one of her favourites, Charles Wright. This tactic produces a distancing, estranging effect which in most cases works to freshen the well-worn subject matter.
There are, characteristically, perfectly-wrought images: ‘dams, great plates of sky nailed to the ground’, and narrative salted with comic dialogue, like the German-accented asides of ‘Dr Becker (the Surgeon)’ : ‘Vot is he saying?….Zere’s a lot of camel excrement’ and Charley Gray’s ‘lor luvva duck’ on riding over an eight-foot snake. The poems also, as they did in Possession, speak fully to the grit of the experience: ‘A man farts. Wills runs fingers/ through last night’s beard-spit…’. Small moments open out to greater historico-political resonance, but with a light touch: watching Dr Becker sketching a vividly coloured spider, ‘Burke thinks: anything that / colour red, in this place, means death./ And then he thinks this is just the place/to run a steam train through.’
As things become increasingly desperate for the expedition (spoiler alert: almost everyone dies) she does not shy from depicting it in spare, telling detail, so that the last lines in the sequence, spoken in lone survivor King’s voice, feel like a necessary unfolding rather than hyperbole. King is sitting in the camp of his indigenous rescuers, reliving the trauma of seeing Wills’ body after ‘wild dogs had eaten bits of him’ and sobs, startling the children playing near him, ‘survival,/ starvation’s bottom line, what we discovered/ – loathsomeness, vileness, horror – /is about me, it is me, it’s us. ‘
In Everyday Epic, Kerdijk-Nicholson continues her important engagement with history, politics and the continuing legacy of colonial violence and ignorance. She has, in addition, contributed several beautiful sentences to the never-ending conversation about art and life, and has also arrived, in her lyric poems, at a new clarity and tenderness. This is a hard-won, meaty collection, and a worthy addition to a significant body of work.
Year of the Wasp
by Joel Deane
Reviewed by GEOFF PAGE
A stroke is among the most disconcerting and disabling afflictions we humans are likely to encounter. Joel Deane, poet, speechwriter, novelist, had one in 2012 and Year of the Wasp is his three-part, book-length poem recounting that event and his recovery from it.
Although there are details of the wards, the nurses etc Deane has preferred to find “objective correlatives” for his suffering and so has, in effect, mythologised the experience. The mythology he uses is mainly classical but some allusions range more widely. While such a decision can frustrate the reader’s desire for medical and rehabilitative detail, it also generates a forward momentum so that the poem threatens almost to break free of the author’s control. Given that lack of control is the defining feature of a stroke, Deane’s strategy is not inappropriate.
The metaphorical energy employed in Year of the Wasp also reminds one of Luke Davies’ long poem, “Totem”, though that was essentially a love poem and this one is about pain (though love does intrude). A willingness to forgo literal coherence in favour of metaphorical intensity also goes back to the American poet, Hart Crane (1899-1933) in his “Voyages” and “The Bridge” sequences. It’s a fine, sometimes risk-taking, tradition.
Deane starts the title sequence clearly enough — and with a distinctly country-Victoria atmosphere: “South of Shepp / the Renault punched a hole / the shape of the first man / in a storm of locusts. / Confirming the irrigation flats / as God’s chosen wasteland.” It’s a characteristic mixture that continues through the rest of the book. The event (the stroke, though we are not told that at first) takes place south of “Shepp(arton)” but already we are in the Old Testament with locust plagues and a looming Jehovah. Later the gods will be classical, rather than the Jewish one, but we know the terrain we find ourselves in.
Another instance of Deane’s mythologising can be seen at the beginning of the very next poem. “It was foolish to hope. He prayed / for rain but the heavens let fall / Tithonus instead, / whose every atom / was transfigured into a wasp.” Here we have a straight statement of the poet’s initial helplessness — and then a reference to the Greek mythological figure, Tithonus, whose divine lover, Eos, asked Zeus to bestow immortality on him but forgot to ask for youth as well. Thus, according to some versions, Tithonus was transformed into a ancient cicada who calls out eternally, begging for death. The analogy to a stroke victim’s situation is more than apposite.
The wasp at the end of this excerpt symbolises the debilitating effects of the stroke throughout the book and, to a lesser extent, the sheer senselessness of strokes. It’s not as if anyone “deserves” one. It’s like being struck down by one of those arbitrary gods who had nothing better to do on the day. At times the wasps are particularly vindictive: “ a wasp performs a pig Latin liturgy / on the tabernacle / that is his tongue.” And we know how important the tongue is to a poet.
The distancing provided by the intermittent third person viewpoint seen here is also part of the poem’s overall effect. It contributes to the “objective” part of the “objective correlative”. And helps to avoid any self-pity.
A further contributor to the work’s overall tone is Deane’s use of literary allusions. His dog, apparently, is called “Caligula”, Robert Lowell’s schoolboy nickname, and so provokes a quotation from Lowell’s poem, “Skunk Hour” : “My mind’s not right.” Earlier on, a “black swan / of a woman” (his Somali nurse?) reminds the poet of Yeats’ “The Wild Swans at Coole”. Both allusions are lightly made but they also help to connect the poem with the mainstream of poetry in English. Year of the Wasp is not at all a “confessional” poem about someone’s reversal of fortune.
A lot of the poems here are short, free-standing ones which contribute only obliquely to the whole while serving to ramify and widen the work’s overall intent. A fine example is seen in the opening four lines of a section which begins: “The way the setting sun shadows / a stand of pines that had no right / to colonise the river bank, / but did and do and shall remain”.
It’s also a foreshadowing of the more explicit political elements in the book’s final section, particularly the longer poem which begins: “Let us talk of Knoxville, Tennessee” and which goes on to intone lines like the following: “Let us and our children and our children’s children / not be burned to the bone. / Let us talk of the sorrow of being. / Let us waterboard General le May until he explains / how a killer is a hero is a father is a son.” Australia, too, does not escape: “Let us argue / at the Hague that the prisoners on Manus Island / are not people but haunted boku-zukin — / and that what is hidden beneath those hoods / is no longer human. “
Some readers may feel that, in these moral/political reflections, Deane has drifted somewhat from his first preoccupation with stroke and recovery. The poet’s response would probably be that the intensity of his suffering has forced him to look beyond himself and to now see his experience in a wider context. The stroke has not diminished his previous moral concerns; rather it has intensified them.
These concerns also lend pressure to the book’s final poem which begins: “There are no happy endings. / There is no life eternal. / There is only grace ephemeral.”. The poem goes on to remember “the years and months, days and hours / of that great unhappiness … “ Deane insists he “will not beg the Fates / for mercy, / for one day more than is my due.” There’s also a passing, and perhaps belated, tribute to the poet’s wife who has been seeing him through all this. “… and — / should tomorrow come / … give me the love I have loved / all my adult days / so that I might watch her clockwise / track the diurnal passage of the chariot / of the sun … / For though we have no time to live, /we have just enough time to love.”
As it was in the beginning, so it is at the end. One minute the poet is asking: “Remember Box Hill Hospital?” The next he’s talking about “the chariot / of the sun”. It’s been a heady combination of the literal and the mythological throughout. If some readers become momentarily lost along the way, the experience of reading Year of the Wasp is likely nevertheless to stay with them. It’ll be some time before they forget the impact of lines such as: “And on the third day / a seagull with ants for eyes / found him half-buried / in winter sand, and wearing / a surgical gown and a hospital bracelet / on a stranger’s wrist.”
Year of the Wasp is a brave book, packed with metaphorical energy, and repays multiple readings.
GEOFF PAGE is a Canberra based poet and critic. He edited Best Australian Poems 2015 and his latest collection is Plevna, a verse biography, (UWA).
Michelle de Kretser was born in Sri Lanka, where she lived until she was fourteen. She went to university in Melbourne and Paris, and now lives in Sydney. As well as Springtime, she has published four novels. Her new novel, The Life to Come, will be published in 2017.
Sydney in spring is a palette of luminous intensity. Fresh green spaces meet vivid blue skies. Lilac jacarandas burst into life throughout the city and its suburbs. It is time of renewal when locals and tourists take full advantage of this most favoured of seasons. It is a curious setting for a gothic tale, albeit the location for Michelle de Kretser’s latest work, Springtime: A Ghost Story. Bringing light to darkness this ‘black-spring’ interview with Michelle de Kretser questions Australian literary and cultural customs and environmental stereotypes. It also probes literary fashions, short form fiction, the Melbourne / Sydney cultural divide, gothic tropes, and the psychology of space. Through her discussion with interviewer Alix Watkins, de Kretser reflects on her interest in haunting, the influence of her Sri Lankan background, and the attraction of brevity following her previous epic Questions of Travel (Miles Franklin Award 2012).
AW: What inspired the writing of Springtime: a ghost story? It’s your first novella. Why did you choose this short fiction form as opposed to writing a novel, the fictional form which you’re most known for?
M de K: It was partly just sheer exhaustion! My last novel, Questions of Travel (2012), was so long, and the worlds of its characters, Ravi and Laura, were so different that it was almost like writing two novels. Whereas a novella, it’s shorter, it takes less time. But I should qualify this, as I do like long short stories. I’m not a fan of micro-fictions or flash fictions—and some of my favourite writers write long short stories—so I guess I just wanted to do something different—to write in this different form and I really enjoyed it. It’s shorter. It’s more compressed. So you don’t deal with things in a leisurely way. You get to the point quickly. Also, I like fiction that doesn’t spell everything out, stories that leave blanks for the reader to fill in. I tried to do that in Questions of Travel too, but by virtue of its being a very long novel there was a lot that had to be described in great detail. Like the set up of the guidebook publishing company, for instance. So one of the advantages of the short fiction form is that it forces you to leave a lot out, which then forces the reader to supply more from their own imagination. So it’s good to leave things out. Someone, I think it was Jean Rhys, said that “there’s no writing problem that can’t be solved by cutting”. I’m not sure that cutting solves all narrative problems, but it can solve a lot of them.
AW: It’s been said that we write what we read? Do you read a lot of short fiction yourself?
M de K: I read a reasonable amount. Often people write both novels and short stories, so if I like a writer, I’ll probably read whatever they have written whether it’s long or short form. I follow writers rather than forms. I have read most of Alice Munro, for instance. I think Patrick White’s short stories are genius, so are his novels. There’s Penelope Fitzgerald and Sylvia Townsend Warner, whose short fiction is very good. And Jane Gardam and Elizabeth Taylor, the real one! Another very good collection—an unusual collection of stories—that came out last year, was Ceridwen Dovey’s Only the Animals.
I’m actually going to be teaching a creative writing masterclass in New Zealand next month, and in this class we will be examining some short form fiction. I’m taking a Canadian story along. It’s a really wonderful story called ‘The Deep’, by a writer called Mary Swan, and it’s pretty long. I’m interested to hear the students’ response to the length of it, among other things.
AW: How would you describe the culture of short fiction in Australia? Is it an established and respected medium?
M de K: I think it’s well established. It’s been around for a very long time, think back to Lawson, for instance. It’s been around in Australia since the 19th Century! But these things are cyclical, there are fashions in literature, like fashions in everything else. Short fiction, I think, was out of fashion for while, through the 1990s and into the 21st Century. But it’s making a come back; it’s being published a little more now. And by mainstream publishers, although it’s still not as popular as long form fiction. And I’m told that the sales of short story collections generally don’t compare with the sales of novels. But then, it’s prizes that boost sales—and prizes tend to go to novels rather than to collections of short stories. Still, I think those Best Australian Stories collections, the ones by Black Inc., they’re pushing the form forward. And Black Inc. must be doing okay, sales-wise, to keep bringing them out.
AW: Can you tell me about the significance of place in your work? How is Sydney different to Melbourne for Frances, the protagonist in Springtime?
M de K: Frances is someone who experiences Sydney as being asthetically and visually different from Melbourne. It seems to lack a certain sophistication and intellectual stimulation that Melbourne offered her. Also, she finds the heat and the light in Sydney somewhat oppressive. But at the same time there is the pull of new love in Sydney, her new man, and the new life they have started there, and then there are the sensual pleasures that Sydney itself provides. In Melbourne, Frances found it too cold to swim in the sea, for instance, but in Sydney she goes swimming. So Sydney is a place of sensual pleasure for Frances.
AW: Is cityspace a character in this novel?
M de K: I hope so but I think not more so than in Questions of Travel, which also describes Sydney and a range of places. I always like writing about place, and I always like reading about place. I like novels that vividly evoke the particularities of a city. I hope that this is the case for Sydney when it’s featured in my work, as well as for other places, like Naples, for instance, which is described in Questions of Travel.
AW: Your work suggests that cultural identity is affected by the character of a city. Do you believe this to be so? Are Melbournians serious and erudite and Sydneysiders sunny?
M de K: I think Sydneysiders are much more serious than Melbournians give them credit for. But place, obviously—Sydney and Melbourne aside, as maybe they’re not so different—but the place where you grow up, it affects everything about your life. Where you are born, the country where you are born: it will effect how long you live, it will effect whether your children are likely to survive infancy, it will effect what they and you will die of. It will effect what your income will be, where you will live, and how you will live. Geography, it’s a really important factor for determining human history.
AW: How does fashion define your protagonist?
M de K: That was just me having fun because I often despair if I’m trying to buy clothes in Sydney. All the clothes here seem to be for an eighteen year old who is going to a party. I still don’t know where to shop in Sydney. I still haven’t found anywhere really good. There is definitely, and you see it if you spend any amount of time here, there’s a certain fashion aethetic that is different from Melbourne. It has to do with climate, really. Melbourne is a place where you wear black to the beach, and Sydney is all golden tans and very skimpy bathers. And Frances, my protagonist, she’s an art historian. She’s a very visual person so she registers these kinds of things. Also, I would say that Frances, although she doesn’t acknowledge it, is obviously deeply uncertain about her new relationship. And some of those anxieties and dissatisfactions are projected onto Sydney—and the intensity of its sun—rather than acknowedged as coming from that relationship.
AW: Interior space provides intrigue in your fiction. What are your thoughts on the respective functions of interior space and exterior space in fiction, and particularly in your own work? Lightness vs. darkness and shadows, etc.
M de K: I’m very interested in domestic space and interior space, because it seems like a extension of psychology. People like to create interior spaces that are a reflection of themselves, and this intrigues me. I like reading descriptions of houses in fiction, and I love walking down the street when people have their windows lit up and their curtains not drawn, as in these moments you get glimpses of other lives… I’m basically a voyeur, as all novelists are. I’m always hoping to get a glimpse into other people’s worlds.
When we were looking for our house in Sydney it was a surreal experience. We’d lived in our last place, in Melbourne, for nineteen years, so the previous time we were house-hunting it was before the internet…and dinosaurs roamed the earth, you know. So it was my first experience of house-hunting with the internet and it was just amazing and fascinating to me that you could look into real people’s houses without ever having to leave your desk, well I was riveted by these real estate sites, and how people self-present through them: through the colours they choose, the furnishing they choose, and the way they decorate their homes. Also, one of the strange things that I noticed, at that time, in those real estate site photos, was that there was never a book in sight. Never! Books are clearly considered clutter, and undesirable.
AW: What is the significance of interior and exterior space for the characters in your fiction and character psychologies?
M de K: I suppose traditionally Bachelard, for instance, would say that a house is a refuge, a sanctury, but one that can also become a trap. If you think of Questions of Travel, Theo’s house in that novel is both a refuge and a trap for him, and he eventually dies in the trap. As for exterior space, it’s unpredictable. You can’t control it in the same way as an interior, which is, I suppose, why people are attracted to gardening. It’s about ordering that exterior space and containing it and keeping it safe. But also, I’m a walker myself, so I always send my characters out walking, which is a way of discovering cities, of getting to know places, and it’s exciting to discover things that way. At the same time, exterior space is always a potential source of danger in the way that an interior space usually isn’t. In the case of Springtime, there are things about the inside of the house which become very uncomfortable for Frances at times, especially when Charlie’s son comes to stay and she needs to get out and to escape from the house. Also, Frances is a rather anxious person and this is projected onto everthing around her, including her domestic space, which is not one that she would necessarily have chosen for herself. She has to make do with what they can afford in Sydney, which is far more expensive than Melbourne. It all comes down to economics in the end.
AW: I’m interested in your writing process. Where did Springtime begin? Was it with an image, an idea, or a character?
M de K: It began with the ending. My books always begin with the ending; this time it was the idea of someone seeing a ghost, which turns out to be something else. I walk along the river in Sydney with my dog, and there’s a house along where I walk which has a manequin that’s dressed up in the garden. It’s now been moved closer to the fence, and you can see quite clearly that it’s a manequin. But when I first moved to Sydney it was set much further back in the garden, which was spooky. In fact, I once saw someone fall off her bike in fright, when she saw it in the early morning light. So that figure was a starting point as well.
AW: Is Springtime aligned with the Australian gothic genre?
M de K: When I think about the term ‘Australian Gothic’, I think about writers like Marcus Clarke, and The Term of His Natural Life, which is about convicts and violence. I also think of newer writing that’s set in the past in Australia. Jessica Anderson’s The Commandant is an example of the latter, as is Rohan Wilson’s The Roving Party or Courtney Collins’s The Burial. Australia, the modern nation I mean, was born of violence, so it’s natural for writers to look to history when they want to explore the local version of the gothic. Springtime, however, is set in the present. I also tend to associate the “the gothic” with certain traditional locations, and with winter and darkness; for me Melbourne is a kind of gothic place because it’s wintry and cold. But Sydney is quite different. It’s relentlessly sunny and springlike here for much of the year, which is why I chose it as my setting. I deliberately wanted to write a ghost story that subverted gothic conventions, by situating it in this very unhaunted Australian city. Now that’s a very simplistic view of Sydney, obviously, but, nevertheless, I wanted to write this story that takes place in broad daylight on a sunny morning, in the last place where a ghost story would normally be set.
AW: Yet your story, it’s set in a garden, and gardens are traditionally mysterious and spooky, no? This garden, it definitely invokes a gothic tradition.
M de K: I do write about the garden in the book as being dark and full of leaves and mysterious, and I suppose the figure that the protagonist sees there, of a very pale female figure in an old-fashioned dress does correspond to gothic conventions. But at the same time, these sightings don’t take place in a spooky churchyard. It’s not a dark and stormy night, and there are no ruins in sight. On the contrary, Frances sees her ghostly figure on sunny Sydney mornings. And although the garden is dark and mysterious, her surroundings are not. There are people around. There is sunlight. And then there’s way the story ends; it’s very open ended. In a traditional ghost shory, something is resolved: the ghost is either exorcised or the ghost kills the protagonist. Whereas in Springtime you think the ghost has been exorcised when the protagonist discovers that she was just a manequin – I mean when Frances goes into the house where she’s seen the mysterious woman and realises that what she thought was a ghost is completely explicable and of this world. Sybil, the manequin, it has no spooky life. But then, just when you think you’re safe, there’s the last surprise, about the dog, which leaves the narrative open-ended. How could it be that Frances saw a dog that the woman from this house tells her is dead? Is the woman lying? Why would she bother? Did Frances see a different dog, which was alive, but which looked like the dog in the picture in that house? You don’t know. And I don’t, either!
So I’d say that I’m playing with this genre—the gothic tradition—in the same way that I played with the whodunit in The Hamilton Case. As a writer, I like to draw on aspects of genre but subvert them at the same time. And subverting the ghost story was sheer pleasure.
AW: What role do ghosts and haunting play in your work past and present?
M de K: In a metaphoric sense, a book is always haunted. It’s haunted by other books. But I’m sure there have been ‘real’ ghosts in my work, too, as I’m very interested in haunting. I’m interested in the idea that people or places are haunted, not necessarily in the literal sense, but in the sense that they are never free of their past. People carry traces of their past with them, they carry traces of what has happened to them there. Also, I’m interested in history, and haunting is a kind of metaphor for that. And then there was my growing up in Sri Lanka where ghost stories were, and probably still are, everyday narrative acts, really. People used to tell ghost stories often, and there were also always beliefs such as a cemetery after dark being a haunted place. Also, we—my family—holidayed in houses that were supposed to be haunted and which had stories attached to them. These were old historic houses. So haunting, I think, was a part of Sri Lankan culture then in a way that it’s not part of Western culture. And I suppose that the same can be said of other non-Western cultures. At a book talk I did recently, a friend of mine was involved in the audience discussion. She was talking about living in Indonesia and how ghosts are just an accepted part of Indonesian culture—even amongst its Western-educated intellectuals. So, I suppose, there’s space for that in non-Western cultures in a way that there isn’t in the West. The West focuses on reason and on the Enlightenment and modernity. And modernity has no place for ghosts, so a ghost in modernity, if it appears, it usually represents the return of the repressed, which is the past. You can see this in Springtime, for instance, through Frances’s fear of Charlie’s past. She would like to break with that past—his child and ex-wife—but she can’t, she can’t free herself of that history. So what she sees in the garden is perhaps an external expression of that.
AW: What is your favourite ghost story? And are there allusions to Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw in this novella, to his representation of children and dogs as uncanny characters?
I do think that The Turn of the Screw is an utterly amazing and wonderful story, I would say that is my favourite example of the ghost story genre. You just don’t know whether the governess is mad, whether she’s making everything up, or whether she is actually seeing the ghosts of the servants who have died and who have now taken possession of the children. So, I guess that’s my favourite ghost story, because of its ambiguity and because of its narrative richness, and because it really changed the way people thought about ghost stories. But I intentionally didn’t reread it when writing this novella. So as for allusions to children and dogs as uncanny characters… those elements may well be in there, if you’ve seen them, but, if so, they’ve been taken over unconsciously.
As mentioned before, I’m going to be teaching a story soon called ‘The Deep’, so I reread it recently in preparation. I thought I remembered what the story was about. I remembered that it’s about twins, twin sisters. But what I find when I reread this story is that yes, it’s about twin sisters, but that these twin sisters have two older brothers who try to kill the twin sisters, or at least, so we think, as when the girls are little they are found almost drowned in a fountain.
AW: Goodness, that’s taking me back to the start of the Questions of Travel…
M de K: Of course, and Laura has older brothers who are twins who try to kill her by drowning her, but I just had no idea, no idea, of the similarity at the time I was writing my book. Obviously there’s a link there, but I hadn’t reread ‘The Deep’ while writing Questions of Travel and if I had I would have been completely inhibited about using those elements. But this is the thing about fiction, it makes an impression on you, it leaves a kind of sedimentation in your brain, that later, much later, rises to the surface in disguised forms, and that’s clearly what happened with ‘The Deep’ and Questions of Travel, and it may have also happened with The Turn of the Screw and Springtime, as you’ve suggested.
ALEXANDRA WATKINS lives in Melbourne, Australia. She has a PhD from Deakin University, where she has taught and researched in literary studies and creative writing since 2004. She specializes in postcolonial and diasporic literatures, as well as literature for children and young adults. Her book Problematic Identities in Women’s Fiction of the Sri Lankan Diaspora (2015) is published by Brill. She has featured on the Radio National Subcontinental Bookclub show, in which she discussed Michelle de Krester’s Questions of Travel.
by Judith Beveridge
Reviewed by STU HATTON
According to the collection of Buddhist scriptures known as the Pāli Canon, Devadatta was a first cousin of the Buddha. Devadatta created a schism within the Sangha (the Buddha’s order), and tried to murder the Buddha on several occasions. In her introduction to Devadatta’s Poems, Judith Beveridge writes:
Some commentators say that Devadatta was the brother of Yasodhara, Siddhattha’s [i.e. the Buddha’s] wife, but I have also read that Devadatta was a suitor to Yasodhara, but he failed to win her hand in a test of arms, and that part of Devadatta’s animosity towards the Buddha was based on jealousy (p. 3).
Beveridge takes the latter version of the tale and runs with it, casting Devadatta as the speaker/poet in a book-length sequence of 48 monologues that she is quick to label as ‘highly fictionalised and dramatised’ (Introduction, p. 3; Beveridge’s emphasis). Here it’s worth noting Buddhist scholar and teacher Reginald Ray’s contention that ‘within the Indian Buddhist corpus’, portrayals of Devadatta are ‘not entirely consisent’, ranging from his being synonymous with evil, to being a saint praised by the Buddha himself (Ray, p. 162). Although Ray’s argument has been criticised in some quarters (see, for example, Bhikkhu Sujato), nevertheless as a mytho-historical figure, Devadatta’s status is unresolved to a certain extent, and this can be seen to offer Beveridge considerable licence.
The book’s title attributes the poems to Devadatta, but of course this is still very much a collection of Judith Beveridge poems. Had it been published anonymously, it would surely have been obvious to dedicated readers of her poetry that this was a Beveridge collection, partly due to hallmarks of style and form. The Buddhist subject matter would also have been a significant clue, since this is not the first time she has traversed this territory. Her 1996 collection Accidental Grace has a short sequence entitled ‘The Buddha Cycle’; and Wolf Notes (2003) includes ‘Between the Palace and the Bodhi Tree’, a longer sequence in which Siddhattha is cast as the ‘I’, tracing the time from when he adopts a mendicant life, up until he is about to attain enlightenment.
Devadatta’s poems tend towards a formal neatness: most have a set number of lines per stanza, and some of the shapelier stanzas use indents with regular patterns. There are a number of variations on the pantoum—whereas ‘Between the Palace and the Bodhi Tree’ offered variations on the stricter, more exacting villanelle. Repetition, simile, alliteration, assonance and rhyme are key linguistic components of the Pāli Canon (see Bhikkhu Anālayo), and all feature in Devadatta’s Poems. Alliteration and assonance are pushed to the limit in ‘Ground Swell’ (p. 8), in phrasings such as ‘the swippling swishes of fly-maddened flails’. Rhyme is employed occasionally, in poems such as ‘In Rajagaha’ (p. 28) and ‘Nightmare’ (p. 44). The concluding rhymes of ‘trash’/‘panache’/‘hash’ in ‘The Hermit’ (p. 48) examplify the humour that invigorates much of the collection.
Repetition comes to the fore in ‘Tailspin’ (p. 19), where practically every word or phrase is repeated at least once. The repetitions convey Devadatta’s obsession with Yasodhara (‘I want to say my prayers / and mantras, but I smell her hair, her scent of jasmine’). We also hear of his struggles with bodily aches (often the bane of the meditator). Devadatta says, ‘I find it hard to have / self-discipline’ and ‘I find it hard / to gain self-discipline’ [Emphasis mine]. It’s as if self-discipline might be ‘had’ like a coveted other, or bought, or hoarded like wealth; he doesn’t say he finds discipline hard to develop or cultivate.
Beveridge’s poetry, though, is aligned with an avowed practice of cultivation. She pursues a hard-won poetry of the ‘finished article’, of the ‘exact phrase’. But such a poetry, when paired with formal niceties, arguably sits a little awkwardly with the disposition and voice of Beveridge’s Devadatta. But perhaps his poetry can be seen as a cathartic outlet, with the formal, ordering processes undertaken therein constituting a mode of sublimation. On the other hand, Devadatta doesn’t seem to embody the kind of discipline needed to produce a ‘hard-won’ poem, and he is certainly not ‘the finished article’. But he doesn’t feel the Buddha fits the latter description either—and this scepticism regarding the Buddha’s attainment, teachings and methods makes for some pointed, scathing or even scandalous poems where much of the collection’s drama emerges.
In ‘The Buddha at Uruvela’ (p. 26) the Buddha is addressing a crowd, and Devadatta wonders to himself: ‘Can’t they see Buddha speaks from the privilege / of a high-borne, well heeled past?’. Devadatta continues: ‘Don’t these / / folk know what shackles them to suffering / is not desire, as the Buddha exposits, but the hard-set, / iron-fisted system of caste.’ Note the full stop after ‘caste’, where one might have expected a question mark. It’s as if Devadatta, being some kind of proto-Marxist, couldn’t bear to see a question mark following what he perhaps sees as a statement of fact.
It’s difficult to deny the importance of caste to the Buddha’s life; indeed, he can be seen as a radical of his time because he allowed members of any caste to join his order. He went against the ideological grain by pointing out that caste, in and of itself, was not an index of one’s spiritual birthright, or one’s potential for awakening. And while Devadatta is right to raise questions of caste and ideology, he seems to put the cart before the horse by nominating the caste system, rather than desire, as the ultimate source of suffering. For what is the caste system if not a programmatic structure to serve the desires of the few at the expense of the desires of the many? From a Buddhist perspective, it might be said that the caste system arises out of craving and aversion (i.e. the two sides of the coin of desire), as well as delusions associated with essentialistic separations between ‘self’ and ‘other’.
Beveridge eschews any claims Devadatta might have to saintliness, and makes no mention of his demand that monastics be more rigorously ascetic than required by the Buddha. As recounted in the Pāli Canon, this demand was, on one level, a ruse employed to create a schism; but it might also be seen as heartfelt. Beveridge has admitted that, compared to his canonical counterpart, her Devadatta is ‘much more lascivious and pleasure seeking’ (p. 3). He is marked as obsessive, covetous, bitter, vengeful, conniving. He’s a gambler, a drinker of wine and koumis, a smoker of hash. He craves delicious food, sexual pleasures, a carnival; if not luxury then certainly not the ‘poverty and slim pickings’ he ascribes to the monk’s lot (p. 15). He lets ‘desire have its ground’ (‘Vultures Peak’, p. 29). All of this flies in the face of the Buddha’s prescriptions for overcoming suffering and attaining enlightenment.
As a kind of nemesis or anti-Buddha figure, it seems appropriate that Devadatta’s cravings and attachments come to nothing. His scheming is ineffectual, and his attempts on the Buddha’s life are botched. In ‘Rocks, Vultures Peak’ (p. 52), Devadatta dislodges a sizeable rock from on high as the Buddha passes below; but the Buddha is ‘barely injured. A cut on his toe.’ Devadatta is at a distance; there is no direct confrontation as such—and this is true of all three methods he employs in attempting to kill the Buddha. Indeed, in forging his character and voice, Beveridge seems to have honed in on Devadatta’s remoteness. He does get on famously with his partner-in-scheming Ajatasattu, who seems just as grasping as him. But it’s noteworthy that all of Devadatta’s poems involving Yasodhara, and almost all involving Siddhattha are either recollections or (day)dreams. There is no ‘direct’, ‘present’ interaction or dialogue between these key characters. Perhaps if Beveridge had attempted to convey such interactions directly, it would have put too great a strain on the voice of the poems—or else some dramatic vehicle other than Devadatta’s voice may have been required?
It’s as if Devadatta has attained some kind of anti-nirvana of infinite, unfulfilled desires. He seems to be caught in past and future; he’s either stewing over past ‘injustices’, plotting Siddhattha’s downfall, or fantasising about Yasodhara. The ‘now’ only seems to get his attention when it involves sensual desire or disgust. And these are interwoven with imagination: cravings clawing towards an imagined future, aversions tending to draw upon the past (e.g. traumatic experiences).
I found Devadatta’s Poems a more grounded sequence than ‘Between the Palace and the Bodhi Tree’. Certainly Devadatta’s diction in the former is less elevated than Siddhattha’s in the latter. ‘Between …’ was dedicated to Dorothy Porter, but it is Devadatta’s Poems that calls to mind Akhanaten and the darker soundings of Porter’s verse novels. Devadatta’s Poems gains vitality from its strokes of humour and playfulness; its flights of sound and sensuality in describing Devadatta’s world; its narrative frictions; and its gritty exploration of the all-too-human.
Beveridge, Judith, Accidental Grace, Brisbane: University of Queensland Press, 1996.
Beveridge, Judith, Wolf Notes, Artarmon: Giramondo, 2003.
Bhikkhu Anālayo, ‘Oral Dimensions of Pāli Discourses: Pericopes, other Mnemonic Techniques and the Oral Performance Context’, Canadian Journal of Buddhist Studies, Number Three, 2007, Toronto: Nalanda College of Buddhist Studies.
Bhikkhu Sujato, ‘Why Devadatta Was No Saint’, Santipada, 24 Oct 2012, accessed 11 May 2016, <http://santifm.org/santipada/2010/why-devadatta-was-no-saint/>.
Ray, Reginald, Buddhist Saints in India: A Study in Buddhist Values and Orientations, New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
STU HATTON is a poet, critic and editor based in Dja Dja Wurrung country. His work has appeared in The Age, Best Australian Poems 2012, Cordite, Overland and elsewhere. He has published two collections: How to be Hungry (2010) and Glitching (2014). Sometimes he posts things at http://outerblog.tumblr.com.
by Sandeep Parmar
Reviewed by NABINA DAS
The reading of Eidolon for me started with the cover art of Sandeep Parmar’s book. The Gustave Moreau painting evokes a sense of mystery and intrigue, as also of solitariness in a ravaged world—emotions that continue to run through the slim volume.
The 50 title-less poems numbered in Roman numerals is a narrative of Helen of Troy’s life then and after, literally. The poetic in this collection embodies artifact or memory, unspoken desire or a snapshot of both past and present.
The classical entity that we know Helen to be, is realized in Parmar’s poetry as a modern identity engaged in acts of everyday ennui or philosophizing about her immediate environs.
fetching the paper from the front lawn in her dressing gown a lot of the time
But that is only one dimension of this ideating the poet indulges in.
The word “denuded” is not only a reference to the body exposed and ensnared but also one that talks of a self shorn off the grandeur one imagines with the feminine representation of Helen of Troy.
Helen denuded Helen
a place of palor where
silk shrinks around her throat
exits the office”
“Silk” becomes the marker of a certain bearing, status or pretension. The idea of beauty, finesse, perfection can well choke the body as well the legacy of all bodies that inhabit a public space in our society.
Eidolon is a compass to memory, a newly annotated reference book to Helen the classical heroine, as well as to the so-called burden of a colonial history that Parmar has seen percolating her own history.
Tippeted old Colonial –
Uncle, his mustard handkerchief
like a standard raised to his lips
asks: ‘If it’s England vs. India
at the Cricket, where do you stand?’
This deviation from the ‘Helen narrative’ actually helps in understanding it better. The “standard” is a sign of power, one that was used by the British colonial masters. The history of the standard is ancient and one that is mostly associated with power and domination. This is further highlighted by the allusion to an “England vs. India” cricket match which, although less charged than an India-Pakistan face-off as any subcontinental would know, is a matter of great pride being staked on the either side. Divided loyalties is the crux of the matter here. Helen could have supported her own husband or her furtive lover. Either way, she would be doomed because she would have to carry the burden of identity pitted against love and duty. The “mustard” can be seen again as a nationalistic indicator given that saffron or mustard still plays a big role in contemporary politics especially in India, where Parmar’s roots are. Originally seen as a color of sacrifice, this hue acquires a complex meaning in the history of war/s and engaged body that the poet explores.
The narrative structure of Eidolon takes us back and forth through the personal emotions of the individual named Helen, her projected historical aura, as well as through Parmar’s own voice of listlessness. Sometimes, the latter appear to be a longing for locating the self through this designated character of Helen.
Helen where are you
and where is your shadow Helen
circling the horse
packed with soldiers
in the voices
of their wives
Something interesting here is at play other than the call for attention. It’s the “shadow” that supposedly addresses the tired soldiers. The multiple becoming of Helen in this manner is an indication of her being seen by the poet as a unique device for iteration. The men are taunted, for they have wasted time in warring. Parmar’s feminist personae through this shadow-talking is highly evocative. The voices that the shadow mimics is a perfect impersonation to drive home notions of love, repose, longing, and feminist futurism.
Throughout the collection, one may say Parmar’s ‘Hellenic ideal’ through the narrative of Helen is also a call to democracy, justice, and equal rights:
US National Interests. Matters of vital interest to the United States to include national security, public safety, national economic security, the safe and reliable functioning of “critical infrastructure”, and the availability of “key resources”. [PPD (Presidential Policy Directive) 20, Top Secret]
It has of course occurred to me that this conversation
is being recorded but what you say
does not anyway belong to me (vii)
The all-too well known image of “Uncle Sam/a pitifully silvered Abe Lincoln/his sinewy hands pray” is the flag bearer of a masculinity-riddled civilization that Helen’s imagery seeks to appeal to, requesting sanity in politics and personal life.
In fact, this conglomeration of ideas—the individual and the collective states of mind—could seem to be jostling too close for elbow space. While the gamut of concepts in undoubtedly eclectic, the sparkle ebbs now and then because the reader hops over staccato sentences, jaunty phrases, abrupt transitions and somewhat loosely structured topic switches.
However, this is where the reader also feels that Parmar toys with space and page and we see a lot of long and short sentences, as though history and lore keep vying for focus, At times, the line breaks, lengths and indents seem too frequent. Language in Parmar’s hands is a tool or a trick. Like memory it rambles or prances. At times it diverts one’s interest in the subject matter. There is no denying the fact that at the end Parmar’s craft provokes to gauge through the verses. Eidolon emerges in the reader’s vision as that ‘reincarnation’ that is at once empowered, prophetic, and questioning.
NABINA DAS is a 2015-16 Commonwealth Writers Correspondent, a 2012 Charles Wallace Fellow, and a 2012 Sangam House Lavanya Sankaran Fiction Fellow. She is the author of a short story collection The House of Twining Roses: Stories of the Mapped and the Unmapped and a novel Footprints in the Bajra. Nabina’s debut poetry collection Blue Vessel was cited as one of the best poetry books of 2012 while the most recent volume Into the Migrant City was cited as one of the top 11 poetry reads of 2014. An MFA from Rutgers University, Nabina teaches creative writing to students in universities and workshops. Her poetry and prose have appeared in Prairie Schooner; The Yellow Nib: Modern English Poetry by Indians (Queen’s University, Belfast); The Indian Quarterly; Caravan; The Missing Slate; Good Housekeeping, etc. Nabina occasionally blogs at http://nabinadas13.wordpress.com/
Selected Poems from Les Fleurs du Mal
by Charles Baudelaire (trans. Jan Owen)
Reviewed by JUDITH BISHOP
‘– Hypocrite lecteur, – mon semblable, – mon frère!’ With these halting, celebrated lines, Baudelaire most hauntingly begs the reader to look inside herself, and to recognize there what he has seen in himself: ennui, avarice, vice, disgust and death; but also, in quite other moods, the dancing chimeras of escape from all that, portals to a half-glimpsed and brilliant immensity of existence.
Baudelaire today still seems our semblable—our counterpart, despite the distances any comparison must acknowledge: the intervals of sensibility as much as time. Exclamatory and forceful, vitriolic and ecstatic, poems such as ‘I worship you’ (‘Je t’adore à l’égal de la voûte nocturne’) bring to their subject matter, an unsatisfied lover’s complaint, an existential intensity often absent from contemporary poetry[i]:
I worship you as I do the midnight sky’s
majestic vault, O silent brooding vase
of sadness, and all the more as you take flight
and I cherish, cruel, unyielding creature, even
the icy air by which you are my heaven!
The intensity that writes each image on a far larger canvas than a personal experience (here, the immensity of the night sky) is arguably the poems’ true subject, as Gaston Bachelard suggested half a century ago:
‘Baudelaire says […] at such moments ‘the sense of existence is immensely increased.’ Here we discover that immensity in the intimate domain is intensity, an intensity of being […]’ (The Poetics of Space, 1958: 193).
Through work such as Baudelaire’s, the reader is invited to share in the (re-)discovery of the intensity of existence—to read her own experience writ large.
Baudelaire lived between the waning of the first and the onset of the second Industrial Revolution. For the mass of those not fortunate enough to lead or to profit from those enormous innovations, the lack of control entailed by the changes could be crushing. Many of Baudelaire’s images and metaphors circle like vultures around an absence of control—in his amorous relations, unable to restrain the desires that he curses; the omnipresence of death; even in his joy and exaltation, when a beloved perfume transports him, half-dreaming, to some distant, voluptuous realm of inner experience. In all of this, Baudelaire seems rarely, if ever, the master of his vessel, and his personal life holds a mirror to his contemporary situation.
Should the revolutions of Baudelaire’s time seem far distant, we might recall that we are, some argue, on the cusp of a fourth technological upheaval or revolution, following on closely from the third, the so-called digital revolution, just as the second industrial revolution built upon and radicalised the work done by the first. A convergence of new materials technologies, biotechnologies, robotics and artificial intelligence, vast data sources and data processing capacities – not to mention the impacts of climate change—may soon overhaul aspects of existence we currently take for granted, and concomitant social changes may knock us out of our own familiar orbits, in ways similar to the existential blows experienced by Baudelaire and others in his time.
In proposing these new translations of selected poems from Les Fleurs du Mal, Jan Owen has risen to the challenge of bringing us a Baudelaire who remains our brother, despite the intervals in time and conventions of emotional tenor: reminding us of an intensity of living which is also ours, even when we choose to look away from it. The resultant poems are a marvel, both technically and in the empathy for their content demonstrated by each choice of word and phrase. The extent to which they succeed underlines the necessary kinship, also, between the translator and the poet she renders.
Jan Owen’s own poems, as illustrated in her most recent new and selected, The Offhand Angel (Eyewear Publishing: 2015), are gentle and ludic—at times delightfully impish—in their tone. They are a deft and melodious tissue of inhabited places from around the globe, people known, birds, insects and flowers, lost times and lost objects, woven together with questions and philosophical asides that open like windows onto gravity and silence. They are, at first, no obvious kin for Baudelaire’s, aside from a certain thread of melancholic memory. Yet our kin are often those who, like ourselves in certain ways, differ in others that we yearn for.
Owen’s musicality, technical facility and her sheer inventiveness in finding ways to echo, if not to mirror, Baudelaire’s content and form in sonnets and other taut forms are one sure sign of her kinship. Take, for example, the transformations in this stanza from Hymn to Beauty (Hymne à la beauté), which, choosing a colloquial music over literal correspondence, result in a poem that, more muted in its energy than the original, is nonetheless in harmony with it. Note in particular the felicitous choice of ‘seraph’ in place of ‘angel’, the ‘velvet eyes’ of the fay rendered as ‘doe-eyed’, the deft half-rhyme of siren/lessen; and the introduced, but apt, ‘dead’ of ‘dead weight’:
Are you from God or Satan – seraph or siren –
you doe-eyed fay of rhythm, scent and light?
Who cares, my queen, since only you can lessen
this world’s ugliness, this hour’s dead weight?
De Satan ou de Dieu, qu’importe? Ange ou Sirène,
Qu’importe, si tu rends, – fée aux yeux de velours,
Rythme, parfum, lueur, ô mon unique reine! –
L’univers moins hideux et les instants moins lourds?
The success of these translations may be judged by their rendering of the most celebrated poems, such as The Albatross, Correspondences, The Voyage, Meditation: Owen does not falter on any of these poems. Her Correspondences is the most delightful translation of that poem I have read; she is bold, here also, leaning on her affinity with the poet to judge when a changed expression is nonetheless a fine equivalent:
All nature is a temple. Words and cries
drift from her living pillars and arcades;
a thousand symbols throng those woods and glades
and watch us pass, with long-familiar eyes.
La Nature est un temple où de vivants piliers
Laissent parfois sortir de confuses paroles;
L’homme y passe à travers des fôrets de symboles
Qui l’observe avec des regards familiers.
Where others have wrestled with the literal meaning of ‘confuses paroles’ (literally, ‘confused words’), Owen translates the emotional element of confuses with the addition of ‘cries’. For the sake of mellifluous rhythm—a key element in the pleasure of Baudelaire’s poems—she adds ‘and arcades’ to ‘pillars’ and ‘and glades’ to ‘woods’, choosing, in each case, a word that recalls the mythological world of ancient Greece, present in so many of the poems. The forest of symbols through which men pass becomes a more active presence in Owen’s version, multiplied to ‘thousands’ that ‘throng’ about the passer-by; yet again, one suspects Baudelaire would have approved, sensitive as he was to all that may impinge on the solitary wanderer: city crowds, perfumes, the sunlit clarity of day. The poem’s final line is likewise a departure from other English versions, yet has a resonance that other versions lack; I will not cite it, but only urge the reader to look it up and judge for himself.
Read these translations for their boldness, yet affinity with a great poet; and read them for the impish joy that here and there comes through in a slangy choice of words, which, perfectly musical, gives the poems a new and contemporary voice.
[i] Though in Sylvia Plath’s work there is many such a moment; and Plath, of course, had been a close reader of Baudelaire, as Harold Bloom reminds us (Sylvia Plath, Bloom’s Literary Criticism: 2007). Meanwhile, advertising has tried to co-opt exclamatory language and existential intensity, cf.: Toyota’s ‘Oh what a feeling!’ and Coca Cola’s synaesthesic ‘Taste the feeling’ campaign, not to mention the exhortation to drink ‘Life’.
JUDITH BISHOP is a poet and professional linguist. Her first book, Event (Salt Publishing, 2007), won the Anne Elder award. Aftermarks appeared in the Rare Object Series from Vagabond Press in 2012. Interval (poems) will be completed this year. Judith lives with her family in Melbourne, Australia.
by Natalie Harkin
Reviewed by PIP NEWLING
‘Consider this words
Natalie Harkin’s first collection of poetry, Dirty Words, illustrates the effects of words down the generations of white Australia’s history. Harkin is a Narungga writer from South Australia and this suite of poems, what Harkin calls ‘an A to Z index of poetry’, begins with ‘Apology’ and continues through ‘Genocide’, ‘Political Correctness’, ‘Xenophobia’ finally completing the cycle with ‘Zero Tolerance’. Describing the work as a short survey through Australia’s recent political and racial history though, while doing justice to the overarching structure of the collection, undermines the real power of Harkin’s work.
Writing into the space between popular assumptions and lived experience Harkin is interested in examining the real and the remembered against the commonly held conclusion. Overlaid with statements by politicians, comments on contemporary Australian society, and texts from the white documentation of this country, Harkin makes obvious the effect of words on lives and histories, both past and future.
Harkin describes how an Aunty would undertake the ‘much work to be done’ as her ‘sing-chant-rage’ and Peter Minter, in his introduction, picks up on this phrase, expanding the triptych to encompass the whole work. Dirty Words is a ‘sing-chant-rage’ but it is also a lament and a call to action.
In particular, the poems form a snapshot of the years from 1996 through to 2014, with former Prime Minister’s John Howard, Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott, the Intervention, land rights and sovereignty, and the Stolen Generations, all appearing within the text. Many of the poems draw on archival texts as far ranging as government legislation, politicians speeches, royal commission recommendations, academic writing, news reports, magazines and personal letters to contextualise and expose racist attitudes towards Aboriginal people in this country, attitudes that are still present in government policy for, and community expectations of, Aboriginal people generally.
For instance, ‘D’ in Harkin’s dictionary is for ‘Domestic’ and begins with a quote from academic and writer Professor Jackie Huggins,
‘The stories of Aboriginal women domestic servants cannot be told enough. They illuminate a deeply-rooted racist facet of Australia’s history. They tell of the trials tribulations and triumphs amidst the backdrop of oppression.’ (p10)
What these histories do within the text is to reveal how interconnected we all are to colonialism in its history and its present within this country. The point of view that Harkin brings to these issues is personal but also national, revealing the links of complicity, trauma and loss. To highlight the complicity of white women (for whose domesticity were these women serving?) in the processes of colonisation, discrimination and oppression Harkin quotes directly from a 1926 publication, The Australian Woman’s Mirror, and shifts the phrasing and enjambments to force the reader to slow, to grasp the extent of the horror these young women endured:
I got her direct from a camp some miles from here and until she
became used to things I had to tolerate the company of her mother and
younger sister for a fortnight [she] was then about 12 years …’ (p7)
That line ‘I got her from a camp’, and the (white) space around it, catches me every time I read this work, reminding me of the everyday power that has been exerted by individuals throughout white Australia’s history. It is also a phrase that, for me as a white woman of this land, holds the mirror clear and still. Harkin’s work is without irony and can be brutal in her demand that the reader recognise herself on the page.
This focus on Aboriginal women’s experience of colonisation is one of the themes of the work, particularly under the inclusion for ‘R’, Resistance. Here Harkin invokes her Aunties lives as rhyme and rage and sophistication and vision, listing their character, work, accomplishments and her ongoing relationship to them:
These days I think of Aunty Irene … and her look grounds me’, (p25)
These days I think of Aunty Elaine … all tough-love-grit …
all elder-knowledge-strength’ (p26)
These days I think of Aunty Charlotte …
one of the wise-ones she survived
this country’s shame and lived on to tell it Like. It. Is’ (p27)
These days I think of Aunty Veronica… big-
she fought hard proud strong …
today’s picket-lines and rallies
are too gentle without her today’s healing-circles are broken
without her’ (p28)
These days I think of Aunty Doreen … her brilliant photographic-
memory begins … almost impossible to take in … she
puts me in my place family history
stories float gently…’ (p29)
These days I think of Aunty Vi …
we always end up talking about what connects us …
quietly writing documenting speaking for justice education
peace … this yearning for
more conversation is an un-settled mourning …’ (p30)
This section closes with Harkin’s action of remembering how useful it is to remember who and what has gone before:
I think of the women
who fought and loved so hard
I raise my hand catch their last breath
I thank them
The image Harkin creates here also draws the reader to that powerful image of the African American athletes on the winners podium at the 1968 Olympic Games, fists raised with pride and so they could not be ignored. Similarly, Harkin’s embedding of these women in her text, and these passages are the foundation of the work, means that their lives, their energy, their purpose can not be ignored or dissembled or dismissed.
There is much movement throughout all the poems: oceans storm, tall ships float, words are carried, we are instructed to walk, we are told of hugs, of protests, of talk, of going bush and of love in many guises. Harkin understands the way words can lift and sweep the reader along, and how to create shock and surprise on the page. As I read, from front to back, then dipping in and out, then back to front, perspectives changed, vistas loomed and retreated, some phrases glimmered as though they were mirages in the desert:
elicit great excitement
into tomorrow (p34)
The other foundation of the work is the land itself and Dirty Words is a significant pleading for environmental restraint and recuperation. ‘Apology’ might be expected to draw on the Stolen Generations and Kevin Rudd’s 2007 apology to those Aboriginal people taken from their families because of government policy. But Harkin neatly and profoundly uses this moment to place the issue of uranium mining up front, linking the mining of uranium in Australia, Aboriginal land rights, and cultural dispossession to the Fukushima and Chernobyl disasters:
Traditional Owners state
Welcome Mr Naoto Kan
[ex-Prime Minister of Japan]
we are very sad
we are very sad
the ongoing disaster
come witness the impact
of where it began
at the start
of this nuclear
This work can be opened at any page and the reader will be met with a layered, complex, re-telling of contemporary Australia. Harkin’s words carry weight and demand the reader recognise their relationship to the map of Australia that Harkin writes. Dirty Words is shimmering rage, weary heartbrokenness and careful optimism and it stands tall and unwavering, a landmark in Australian publishing.
PIP NEWLING’s first book was Knockabout Girl: A Memoir (HCA) and her creative nonfiction writing has been published in Meanjin, Kill Your Darlings and the Fish Anthology. She is currently writing about local swimming pools, and has a Doctor of Creative Arts (Creative Writing) from Wollongong University in which she wrote about place, race and community and wrote a memoir of her hometown, Taree in NSW.
John Kinsella’s most recent books of poetry are Firebreaks (WW Norton, 2016) and Drowning in Wheat: Selected Poems (Picador, 2016). His most recent book of short stories is Crow’s Breath (Transit Lounge, 2015). He is a Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge University, a Professorial Research Fellow at UWA, and Professor of Literature and Sustainability at Curtin University.
Australia’s New White Paper on Defence and Blake’s Illustration of Dante’s Inferno, Canto 21: Devils Proffering Protection
Smug as pulling an all-night session cooking the books,
a half a trillion is sucked out of the country over
half a decade, all those zeroes, all that decimation.
A regional power. A projection of force. Consolidation
behind borders. Balance. ‘De-coupling from economy’
so fall or fail, the percentage will stay steady for Defence.
Horns and pointed tails, they get drones. With drones
you can go anywhere through the three worlds. North
or south, east or west. Investment. Capability. Readiness.
This is already less of a poem because it does more than
suggest. It is not allowed to do its own work. Language
is the loser here. The fluted gowns of Dante and Virgil
can’t bring enough solemnity or joie de vivre to this
unique and happy moment. The musculature of devils
is something addictive, awe-inspiring. At first,
they use reasonable language, but if challenged
they smell of burning and so do you. This is the acid
used in manufacture, and it’s the by-products
of Innovation, Industry and Co-operation. No use
resorting to personal insults as the spreadsheets
are filled in. Electronic warfare. Flesh-hooks
new punctuation marks. Think of it this way:
a novelist, one who has no empathy with the bush
in any real way whatsoever, stays for a few weeks
among the parrots and eucalypts, and captures
a bit of the stereotypical for his page. The renditions
of urban culture or colonialism or small towns
need rounding out. He is writing a White Paper
on habitation and nature. The edges where, say, a possum
rubs against the tin roof, or pokes its nose into food stores,
or pisses through the ceiling. Or maybe the essentialism
of parrotology, its scope for global renovation, a redemptive
unleashing on the thinktanks of the world. Policy. Inspiration.
Defending the wealth of words none of us can feel whole.
They are sieved through the orb-weaver’s web, through
Defence Department computers. That not-quite blood
red Blake gets. A watering-down. Sickly. Water spitting
on the barbecue hotplate. Redemption for the Australian
factory floor now home-made cars are gone. Rackety cockatoos.
On Blake’s Illustration for Canto 8 of Dante’s Purgatory: Kammmolch (Great Crested Newt)
The vipers are asleep.
The pond with shadows
cut away on the Spitzberg
is frozen solid, bristling
with sticks poked in to test
viscosity, then locked into place.
This is the breeding
refuge of the Kammmolch,
red list species.
Off their face, young men
and women, boys and girls,
stagger around its bleak eye.
They settle on a fallen conifer,
a bench of moss, and stare.
The Kammmolch awaits
the pond’s release,
unravelling of winter.
hover over beech and oak,
seeing through to the forest
floor, the sad youth.
Down in the Neckar
and Ammar valleys,
are getting workovers.
Citizens are crossing swords.
So many interferences.
The paths through the forest
are bituminised. Once, on terraces,
grapes were grown. Down below,
where the Kammmolch once ranged,
sediment accrues. The fragment
of forest looks to diversity
to absorb the come-down
from methamphetamines, that look:
Kammmolch hoping to breed
where forces have shut them out.
Tread carefully in your withdrawal.
May the pond take eggs and light.
Fresh News from the Arctic (Anne Elder Award), This Floating World (shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards and The Age Book of the Year Awards), and Wild (shortlisted for the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards).
We possess nothing in the world,
but I’m listing all I’ve ever wanted.
It’s only one thing,
turning and turning in my mind
like this amulet
in this open palm that knows you.
Knows your mouth sweet, your rough cheek.
It knows well this love comes with hex marks.
With you: letter-burner, light-bearer.
Heart of wildfire, heat of unquenchable prayer.
With you: my soul’s single spark.
Foxtrot. India. Romeo. Echo.
My fresh sting. My breath spin,
each time I turn and turn in your hands.
Note: “We possess nothing in the world” is from “The self” by Simone Weil (Simone Weil: an anthology, edited and translated by Siân Miles, Penguin Books, London, 2005).
by Pan Zijie
maninriver press, 2015
ISBN 10: 0987473352
Reviewed by OUYANG YU
Shortly after I received a copy of Beijing Spring, in Melbourne, for reviewing, I got on my way to Canberra for a visit and read the book in one go on my flight there. Immediately, a number of things, quite suggestive absences, caught my attention: there are no blurbs on the back and no author biog, things that one reads before one plunges into poetry.
Other things emerge, in the book, and, now, a few days after, from memory, without reference to the physical copy of the book and perhaps out of sequence, too: beginnings of lines or sentences that serve as high-lighted titles, some in larger font sizes than others; Beijing Spring, the title of the book, that reminds one of a similarly titled pro-democracy political magazine based in New York, known as《北京之春》（beijing’s spring）, and that is also a reference to the period of political liberalization in China in 1978 and 1979; retelling of stories in martial arts films; letters to an unknown recipient, or perhaps the poet himself, or, as suggested at Amazon online bookshop, ‘to a famous revolutionary poet’ (http://www.amazon.com/Beijing-Spring-Zijie-Pan/dp/0987473352/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1456873105&sr=8-1&keywords=beijing+spring%2C+pan+zijie ) from a ‘sister’; and travels around Beijing in a ute.
But if you take it to be a book of political poems you’d be wrong although the cover photo suggests blood and flowers, symbols of revolution, when, on closer inspection, they actually are the debris of firecrackers, with the bluish smoke of blasting in the background. This book, by its very absence and anonymity, has managed to achieve the purpose of creating a mine of hidden treasures, written in poems, prose-poems, letter poems or story-poems, for the bewildered readers to dig for themselves. One I like in particular tells the story of a dream,
In another dream
you’re in an inn where
you’ve come to meet a stranger
You ask the innkeeper whether someone
is waiting for you, the innkeeper
is blunt, he doesn’t know of any
one waiting for you.
No, a lot of others are waiting for
food and wine
Why is someone waiting for you? (p. 21)
And that left me smiling wryly, at this dream that doesn’t seem a dream but that remains a dream because it’s titled a ‘dream’. Quite a number of poems feel like that and it’s an interesting, endearing quality.
There are other poems that I like, too, such as ‘She says it stinks’, ‘Pretty Girl’ and ‘Dear Brother’ (p. 65).
One was left with an uncomfortable feeling, though, when one finished reading the book. Questions keep coming up: Why is the poet so unassuming, keeping such a low profile that it almost feels like the book was written by an anonymous person? Is there a deliberate statement being made through this anonymity and suppression of one’s own identity? Why did this reader feel an affinity with the poet and his book?
I did my homework and found out about the poet. He was originally known as Zijie Ken Pan, born in 1956. Having published his first book of poetry, Vostok & This Could Have Happened to You in 2002, he did his PhD in creative writing in 2006 at Macquarie University, with his thesis titled, ‘Representations of Chinese men in Australian fiction 1973-2000: an analytical interpretation and a novella.’ A second book of poetry appeared in 2015, In Another Time. A number of poems were published in such diverse magazines and newspapers as Southerly and The Australian, though the poet’s name had changed from its anglicized version to the current Chinese pinyin version of Pan Zijie, the same way Leslie Zhao, Australian-Chinese short-story writer, on returning to China to become a playwright based in Shanghai more than a decade ago, reverted back to his original Chinese pinyin version of Zhao Chuan.
It seems to me that the poet is engaging in a process of de-Australianization, or, to put it mildly, a process of resistance, of not wanting to be known as part of all that, of wanting to go it all alone no matter what, and of connecting to one’s past with one’s own stories or poem-stories that are being suppressed or suffer the risk of suppression in a country one is a migrant in. Can I also suggest that the press, Maninriver Press (Man in River Press?), is also part of that process, being apparently, and proudly, run by Asian-Australians, or even migrants, something that I always admire and hope for as many of my books were published by migrant-run presses, such as Papyrus Publishing, Wild Peony and Brandl & Schlesinger, to name but a few?
That the word ‘Australia’ is never mentioned once in the book adds to the impression that this is deliberate and, if that is so, the strategy works well. Again I think of Zhao Chuan who, in a number of meetings we had, hardly ever mentions Australia while his work is being shown around in other European countries such as Switzerland and England.
While I looked in vain for the word ‘Australia’ in the book, I managed to find tropes evocative of the country, in lines like this, ‘to stay small harmless nations’ (p. 65), or this, ‘The winds come from the north. Always dry, in strong gusts pushing and bending trees’ (p. 60), and this, ‘Refugee may be a long way, some things will become burdens, a country, a home…’ (p. 56), ‘refugee’ being a subject Pan once wrote about in a poem, found here (http://www.sundresspublications.com/stirring/archives/v2/e2/panzk.htm ), although not a major concern in this collection.
The major concern, to this writer, seems to be a preoccupation with the creation of the poet’s own mini-autobiographies; about ‘us little folk’ (p. 35), be they stories about ‘Beijing Metro’, in an eerie dreamlike situation where ‘He shows a photograph of five heroes. Himself as Zhu De…’ (p. 7); about ‘toads’ whose ‘venom’ is squeezed for ‘medicine’ (p. 11); about this ‘I’ who’d ‘get a job teaching English at the Beijing Language and Culture University’ (p. 14); about stories based on the martial arts (Wu Xia) films in which nothing is said but everything seems to have been said, another impression of mine; and about letters sent by Sister to ‘Dear Brother’ in a sequence of what is known in Chinese as tongti shi (poems written under the same title).
And, last but not least is the interesting fact that Chinese words in pinyin share the same importance of English words by not being put in italics, thus not being made to look strange, such as ‘xiangchun’, ‘guqin’, ‘pipa’ and ‘siheyuan’ (p. 17), all immediately known to me, eliciting an instant smile on my face, though that may baffle the monolingual English-language speakers in this country and elsewhere. But who cares? A migrant is not a required explanation. He or she is, to borrow one word image from the book, an ‘invisible cloud’ (p. 57), that ‘drive(s) away the devils’ (p. 70).
Before I wrap up, I must quote Pan as saying, in a remark that may shed some light on his poetic presence through political absence—e.g. identity politics and etc, ‘I found myself as a person of colour who theoretically shouldn’t have been here.’ (https://twitter.com/mascarareview/status/667161990645743616?lang=en )
OUYANG YU has published over 55 books of poetry, fiction, non-fiction, literary translation and criticism in English and Chinese languages, including his award-winning novel,The Eastern Slope Chronicle (2002), his collection of poetry in English,The Kingsbury Tales (2008), his collection of Chinese poetry, Slow Motion(2009), his book of creative non-fiction, On the Smell of an Oily Rag: Speaking English, Thinking Chinese and Living Australian (2008), his second novel, The English Class (2010), his book of literary criticism,Chinese in Australian Fiction: 1888 1988 (2008), and his translation in Chinese, The Fatal Shore (forthcoming in 2011).